Tasmania joins the mad coal party

If you think Tasmania’s isolation protects us from the global madness that is modern coal mining, think again. [26 November 2013 | Peter Boyer]

A trainload of Fingal Valley coal. IMAGE: MINERAL RESOURCES TASMANIA

Let’s be clear: Employment is important. I have no problem with corporations paying people to dig coal out of the ground.

As long as they then pay them to put the coal back, fill in the hole and leave the landscape as they found it. That’s ridiculous of course, but no more ridiculous than digging it up in the first place.

There’s an excellent case to be made that Australia is collectively insane. It’s not the overt kind of madness that’s taken hold in places like Syria and Afghanistan, but it’s madness nonetheless. Here’s why.

Since the mid-1990s the global fossil fuel industry has said affordable technology to capture and store carbon emitted from coal combustion (CCS) was 10 years away. Now it’s saying we won’t be able to deploy it at until 2030 or later. It’s fair to assume that it will never happen.

That being the case, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in its draft scientific report in September that if we’re to limit warming to 2C (the “safe” limit), more than 70 per cent of the coal, oil and gas that we currently know is in the ground will have to still be there in 2050.

The 27 per cent of reserves that we can afford to burn is what the IPCC calls our “carbon budget”. It’s a scientifically-based way of framing the debate, but it went down like a lead balloon among diplomats and politicians at the 2013 UN climate meeting in Warsaw, which ended at the weekend.

Since the 1997 meeting in Kyoto, governments have learned to live with targets. Even the Abbott government, not known for its enthusiastic embrace of climate science, tolerates (barely) a very modest 2020 emission reduction target. But an absolute budget is another matter altogether.

Negotiations around an absolute budget would force governments to confront the reality of carbon already released to the atmosphere, mostly by developed countries, which may already be enough to push us to the 2C limit that leaders agreed to in Copenhagen four years ago.

So with enough carbon up there now to continue to warm us for decades or even centuries, we’re continuing to emit it as if there’s no tomorrow. The Global Carbon Project revealed last week that overall world emissions are still rising by over 2 per cent a year.

So what does Australia do? Driven by a small but influential group of business interests, we set about extracting coal, oil and gas to export to Asia. Since 2009 we’ve been exporting 2.5 times as much fossil-fuel carbon as we’ve been emitting at home, and the figure keeps rising.

With Queensland and to a lesser extent NSW governments scrambling to meet big coal’s demands for port and rail infrastructure, the industry expects to double its exports over the next decade or so. The Great Barrier Reef and Hunter Valley agriculture are collateral damage.

The madness isn’t confined to Australia. From 2000 to 2012 world coal production grew by nearly 70 per cent, and for the first time ever will soon pass a yearly rate of 8 billion tonnes. Over 43 per cent of human carbon emissions world-wide are caused by burning coal.

You might expect Tasmania to hold itself aloof from this insanity. We’re now in a kind of global clean, green big league. Last week in Warsaw, Tasmania was admitted to the Climate Group, an independent global organisation supporting leadership for a smarter low-carbon future.

Tasmanian membership recognised the value of our renewable energy. Hydro capacity makes coal redundant here for generating electricity. Our single coal-miner, Cornwall Coal, serves domestic cement and paper industries from Fingal and Derwent valley operations.

But the mad coal party is our party too, it seems. There’s no way we’re going to stand aside and watch other parts of Australia go crazy over exporting coal.

In September came the announcement that a new player, Hardrock Coal Mining, was to set up operations in the Fingal Valley which from 2016 would deliver more than a million tonnes of coal a year to Asian markets.

If that wasn’t surprising enough, earlier this month another proposal came to light, for an open-cut mine on pasture land near Hamilton, next to existing Cornwall Coal operations. Indicoal Mining Australia envisages that its proposed Langloh mine will eventually extract 910,000 tonnes a year.

So between the two operations, Tasmania would be exporting around 2 million tonnes of coal a year to Asian markets, for probably fewer than 100 jobs plus some indirect employment in contracted services, in an industry with bleak long-term prospects.

Tasmania, like the rest of Australia, is simply doing what it’s always done. We have coal we don’t need, while China and India are desperate for more of the stuff to drive their developing economies.

But today’s technology enables coal to be mined at an unprecedented rate, enough globally to change our climate for millennia. We could choose a precautionary approach, leaving it where it is and taking more sensible economic paths, but who can resist the lure of jobs and a quick buck?

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•  TODAY sees the release of the state government’s much-anticipated 2020 climate change strategy, Climate Smart Tasmania, addressing both the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and measures to adapt to a rapidly-changing climate.

The release of this comprehensive plan is a welcome respite from a national trend that’s seen climate change relegated to policy obscurity by governments in Canberra and around the country.

The strategy has involved more than a year of information-gathering and intensive public and stakeholder consultation by a dedicated team under climate change minister Cassy O’Connor. It will be posted this morning (26 November) at the Tasmanian Climate Change Office website.

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One Response to Tasmania joins the mad coal party

  1. Eric Boglio says:

    Will the effects of our carbon pollution now be felt for decades, centuries or millennia? Good question, last time a warming event happened 56 million years ago, it took 150000 years for natural processes to reabsorb the excess CO2. This is a point that is never driven enough, we have already cursed ourselves for literally a thousand generations, and the more we delay real action the more we will pay, extreme weather events are now here to stay. If you want further reasons to stop emitting carbon, permafrost thawing is likely to release methane hydrate deposits, methane causes 20 times the greenhouse effect of CO2. We need to plan now to stop all further carbon release, full stop.

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